With only his third feature, new filmmaker Chuan Lu has created an extremely poignant experience with his film City of Life and Death. I had a chance to see this one at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and was certainly not disappointed.
City of Life and Death is a chronicle of what has become known as the Rape of Nanking, or Nanking Massacre, which occurred over six weeks from December 1937 to January 1938 after the Japanese Imperial Army captured Nanking, then the capital of China. It is not necessary that I expound upon the atrocities that were committed during those six weeks, but please know that this film is a subdued depiction of what actually occurred, and yet remains a very graphic film that is difficult to watch.
Shot in a breathtaking black and white, Lu's film achieves a level of authenticity that often eludes fictional works based on historical events. Furthermore, the perspective that Lu conveys to the audience is not one that identifies with any particular character, but rather places us in the very midst of the atrocities that are occurring. As we spend time with each of the characters in the film - Chinese, Japanese, Westerners, soldiers, and civilians - it is as though we become a part of each of these groups. Lu establishes a means of identifying with all of the characters in his film, regardless of how they came to be involved in the events of the Nanking Massacre. The camera work is very effective in placing the audience in the midst of the hell that has enveloped the city of Nanking without visually overwhelming us with excessive camera motion and chaotic action.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Lu's film is his portrayal of the Japanese officer Kadokawa. In this character, Lu shows a member of the Japanese army who demonstrates humanity, compassion, and utter terror at what he witnesses. Heretofore, no such films of which I am aware have shown the Japanese involved in the Massacre to be anything other than inhuman. That such a depiction has come from a Chinese filmmaker is indeed something important.